10 Things You Didn't Know About Chemotherapy

Medically Reviewed by Gabriela Pichardo, MD on June 07, 2020

If your doctor says you need chemotherapy, your thoughts may turn to outdated notions of what's involved. Like a lot of folks, you may picture days on end in the hospital, hooked up to an IV drip. The truth is there are lots of ways to get chemo, including pills and even skin creams. And the side effects aren't the same for everyone.

Learn these surprising chemo facts, and you'll be better prepared for what's ahead.

1.You may not need to stay overnight in the hospital.

A hospital isn't the only place for chemo. You may also get treatment at home, in your doctor's office, at a clinic, or in an outpatient wing of a hospital where you don't have to stay overnight.

Where you get treatment, what type of chemotherapy you have, and how often you get it depend on a number of things, including:

  • The type of cancer you have and how advanced it is
  • Whether you had chemo before
  • Other health problems, like diabetes or heart disease
  • Your goals and preferences


2.You take some chemo drugs as pills or skin cream.

You may not need to get chemotherapy through an IV. Your doctor may suggest you use one of these methods:

  • Shots in your arm, thigh, hip, leg, or belly
  • Through an infusion port, a device put underneath your skin that connects to a vein
  • A cream or gel that you rub on your  skin
  • Pills, capsules, or liquids that you swallow 


3.Chemo can help even if it doesn't get rid of your tumor.

Chemotherapy works by killing cancer cells, so you might assume that the goal is always to eliminate a tumor. But doctors sometimes use chemo for other reasons, such as to:

  • Kill hidden cancer cells in your body after you already had surgery to remove a tumor
  • Shrink a tumor before you get other treatments, like surgery or radiation therapy
  • Help relieve some cancer symptoms, even if a cure isn't likely


4.You might be able to continue your work during chemotherapy.

Chemo isn't always as overwhelming as you might expect. Some people can work during treatment. Since you won't know how you'll feel until you start, it's best to have a flexible schedule. Working part-time or from home on days that you don't feel well can help you stay on top of your job without getting too exhausted.

5.Side effects can vary.

There are dozens of ways chemo might affect you, from fatigue and constipation to hair loss, nausea, and mood changes. But it's not the same for everyone. Some people get few side effects or even none at all.

Which ones you get depend partly on what drugs you take. But it's hard to predict until you start treatment. Talk to your doctor about what to expect.

6.Side effects can show up months, or years, after treatment.

Some long-lasting and late-developing effects of chemo can include:

  • Lung, heart, and kidney problems
  • Infertility
  • Nerve damage, called peripheral neuropathy
  • A higher chance of getting a second cancer


7.Changes to your diet can help you manage the side effects.

Eat the right foods -- and the right amount -- and it will help you stay energized during chemo. It will also make you feel less nauseated.

Try these diet tips:

  • Eat plenty of protein and calories when you can. Your appetite may be highest in the morning, so that can be a good time to get in a bigger meal.
  • If solid foods aren't appealing, try liquid meal replacements for extra calories or juice, soup, or milk.
  • Try soft, cool, or frozen foods like yogurt, milkshakes, and ice pops.
  • Eat five or six small meals a day instead of three larger ones. This can help keep you from feeling too full.


8.Chemotherapy is sometimes used to treat diseases other than cancers.

Because chemo drugs work well to kill fast-dividing cells, doctors sometimes use them to fight other conditions.

 Chemotherapy can be used to:

  • Prepare for a bone marrow stem cell transplant if you have a bone marrow disease
  • Treat an overactive immune system -- your body's defense against germs -- in diseases such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis


9.Before you start chemo, make sure your vaccinations are up to date, and visit the dentist.

In addition to killing cancer cells, most forms of chemotherapy also kill cells in your immune system. That raises the chances you'll get infections during your treatment. To deal with this problem, you should:

  • Check that you've had all the vaccines you need, including the flu shot, before chemo.
  • Visit the dentist to make sure you don't have any bacteria in your mouth that could cause an infection during treatment.
  • Wash your hands often while you're on chemotherapy, and ask your friends and family who are around you to do the same.
  • Stay away from people and pets who are sick. Even a mild cold can become more severe during chemo.


10.Over-the-counter drugs and vitamins can interfere with chemotherapy.

You probably think of vitamins as a safe way to improve your health, and sometimes that may be true. But taking high doses of some, including vitamins A, C, and E, can backfire during chemo. Some studies show they interfere with the way some drugs work.

Talk to your doctor about which vitamins -- and any other over-the-counter drugs and supplements you usually take -- are OK to use during treatment.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute: "Chemotherapy and You."

Mayo Clinic: "Chemotherapy."

American Cancer Society: "Getting Chemotherapy," "Chemotherapy Side Effects."

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